It is in the decision we take over whether to accept someone on trust or not that community is built. A preference for the latter option is weakening us.
Two simple words to which the response seems increasingly to be, why?
Old assumptions about trusting other people are fraying. The last time the Pew Global Attitudes survey was conducted into levels of trust in different nations, China, Sweden, Canada, UK and USA had the highest levels of trust within their societies. This was in 2007. The next time the survey is conducted will be illuminating because big events have happened since. The banking crisis and near total economic collapse of 2007-08; resulting austerity; technological disruption; sexual abuse scandals; inordinate executive pay. Each has rocked faith in the system and in the people that run it. No-one can perfectly define who the elites are that are allegedly lining their pockets and promoting their families at the expense of less fortunate people, but everyone is careful to place themselves on the right side of that divide now.
Political elections across the world are evidencing a profound shift in public attitudes. The question no-on can answer is whether this is a temporary or lasting development. To make it the former, believable, tangible changes need to be made to systems. If it proves the latter, the remarkable things we have seen in the early twenty-first century may only be the outlier of what is to come.
Fundamental to this challenge is the issue of trust. The loss of faith in public institutions has wider ramifications. We shape our identity and common purpose through the institutions we form. Once these are corroded or believed to be so, we lose a means by which we understand who we are and how we belong to one another. Social welfare, for instance, was created as a way of protecting people who are down on their luck. It was underscored by values of equality, respect, commonality; the idea that we would do for others what we would like them to do for us, if needed. This shared view has broken down: welfare is perceived either to be mean or its claimants to be deceivers. Instead of shoring up a shared identity, it emphasises our differences, undermines trust and satisfies no-one.
Public trust is such a large, dynamic and malleable asset, that it can take a generation meaningfully to alter course. This means there is only so much we can do to restore it. But these options exist. If large institutions are believed to be tarnished, local bodies – the clubs and associations sprinkled across a neighbourhood – are more resilient. We know the people who inhabit them; we can join them and influence them. And they shape the local landscape, its people and their relationships.
This shows both the calling and the capacity of the local church. Our faith is rooted in trust. We are invited to trust the Lord for our salvation and in his enduring goodness, even when life is bad for us. It is well-attested that cultures and economies flourish when trust is strong. This is how God has made us. Trust in him promotes trust in others, showing the kind of lead the Church should offer. Anthony Seldon, in his book ‘Trust’, identified several factors in the undermining of trust in the UK, one of which was the ‘decline of religious and moral codes’. This is probably right, but for the Christian, the question of a moral code delves much deeper into a series of right relationships that are grounded in faith and love.
God asks our trust in him to be shown towards others. We are to welcome the stranger. To extend trust towards people we do not know. This is at odds with the prevailing mood, which is suspicious, even hostile, to those who are not like us. There are risks that have to be assessed in offering hospitality to the stranger, for not all mean us well. But most probably do. It is in the decision we take over whether to accept someone on trust or not that community is built. Our preference for the latter option is weakening us year on year.
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